In Defense of Taylor Swift’s reputation5 March 2021
I wish I could say that my first time listening to a Taylor Swift song was ~an experience so divine, it was like no other~ but that wouldn’t be true. The first time I heard her music, I was at my cousin’s house, who, like most other rich pre-teen girls in India, really, realllly wanted to show off her new iPod. I was already so annoyed by the time she had finished trying to mimic Miley Cyrus that when she played ‘Tim McGraw’, I didn’t pay much attention. But as the song progressed, my interest grew. I remember asking her with hesitance who the artist was. She replied with the slight condescension I had come to expect from her and others like her: “It’s Taylor Swift, and she’s amazing!” I can’t really explain what it was about Taylor’s music that drew me in. Maybe it was her vocals, maybe it was her guitar skills, or maybe it was my desire to assimilate into a social class that loved Taylor (or any other American artist).
But as she rose to fame, every critic, every music publication, and everyone desperately trying to prove themselves as having ~refined~ taste in music hopped on the bandwagon that Swift’s music was ’basic’, and decided unanimously in their Headquarters of Music Criticism that being basic was a crime against humanity that should end musicians’ careers and be used as a reason to send them to vocal purgatory.
My concern with, and dismissal of, this specific criticism of Taylor and her music doesn’t stem from me being an ardent fan, and running a burner account on Swiftie stan Twitter (yes, this is very much a thing). Rather, it emerges from observing that conflating Taylor’s innate ‘basic-ness’ with frivolity speaks to the much larger issue of how arbitration of art by gatekeeping forces is an inherently classist process that associates the lack of accessibility of a piece of art with it being worthy of appreciation. The Orwell-reading, Foucault-quoting, Colombian-roast-sipping budding socialists I went to uni with loathed TayTay with every last anti-capitalist bone in their bodies. Yet, they still haven’t been able to produce a single criticism of Swift or her discography that doesn’t boil down to simply her being a popular female musician. And don’t get me wrong, I am not stating that Taylor is beyond criticism. No one is, much less a white woman who is a mega-millionaire, but her ability to connect with millions of people around the world with her lyricism and music isn’t something that I will ever accept as reason enough to put her down.
Taylor’s musical prowess isn’t one that needs to be elaborated upon (yet, here I am!). Years of bad faith criticism and an almost endless barrage of negative comments about her style of music has meant that Taylor has had to reinvent herself and her art more times than any other artist in recent memory. She’s had to switch from her country roots (self-titled, Fearless, and Red) to soft pop (1989). And because that was too basic as well, she experimented with more normcore pop in reputation, which was seen as too much, and you guessed it, too basic, so she produced the more heartfelt Lover. And don’t get me wrong, the results have been nothing short of spectacular. But it seems like nothing she does will ever appease the self-proclaimed cultural connoisseurs who only listen to extremely hard-to-find, impossible-to-stream musicians like… Tame Impala.
We as a society have for long romanticised inaccessibility, whether through ‘members only’ clubs, Ivy League universities with acceptance rates of minus two per cent, or first-class flight tickets that cost a kidney and a half. This has unfortunately given birth to a movement in the arts that believes the more difficult to comprehend a piece of art is, the more worthy it becomes. So artists like Taylor, who are widely known, and make music that is seemingly easier to comprehend, will always be viewed as ‘basic’, and that will always be a negative. In a world where everyone wants to be different, where everyone is rushing to forge a ‘unique’ taste, the idea that popular musicians can also be extremely brilliant will always be incomprehensible to these gatekeeping forces.
Taylor’s discography has evolved significantly over the years, and she continues to be insanely popular. If anything, it should be a testament to her brilliance as a songwriter and a musician that even after over a decade in the industry, she continues to rule the hearts of millions. Instead, it is used as a factoid to double down on her basic-ness. So I guess the cool kids on the block can get on about it with some indie record that’s much cooler than hers, but I for one will not be Shaking her Off.